Review: Rolling America

I came across Rolling America in a place that, a couple of years back, I would never have expected to find quality, modern games: the toy section of Target. But, for whatever reason, Target has gotten fully into the modern gaming scene, selling classics like Catan and Ticket to Ride, newer games like Forbidden Island, and even getting their own “exclusives” like Codenames: Deep Undercover. Because of this, we periodically stop by the games area when we are in a Target to see what stuff they’ve got.

I was familiar with the predecessor game Rolling Japan, and I had played at least one other “roll and write” game from the publisher Gamewright, so when I spotted Rolling America in the display, for as cheap and small as it was, I figured it was a no-brained to pick it up. If nothing else, I was sure that I could give it as a gift if we ended up not enjoying it.

The game is fast and simple: you roll a couple of dice, write a couple of numbers in states in regions that match the colors of the dice, and make sure you follow a single restriction on adjacency. Then, repeat. It follows a pattern of many light-weight family dice games in that way, from Yahtzee to Roll For It, but where those games are heavily reliant upon luck and center around the dice, Rolling America is surprisingly strategic, rewarding organization and forethought.

There are two reasons for this. The first is that the dice that are rolled are communal. When the red die comes up six and the yellow die comes up four, everyone at the table must write a six in the red region of the map and a four in the yellow region. So, although there can be some dice rolls that are better for some positions than others, everyone takes the same inputs and must do a better job with them than the other players. A “wild” die, that you can place in any region, ensures that initial similarities disappear; I place it in a region that you don’t, and no longer can we play out the game in the same way. Because of this, the game is very heavily skill-based. Knowing what to do with certain rolls and how to best play them (at least, how to better play them than your opponents) is how you win.

The second reason that Rolling America feels more strategic than similar “push-your-luck” dice games is the restriction on placement that I alluded to earlier. When you write a number adjacent to a number you already have placed, the numbers must be within one point of one another. So, a five can go next to a four, five, or six, but cannot touch a three. Here is where superior planning wins the game, because knowing the sizes of the regions and states, the number of adjacent states, and carefully placing your “wild” numbers is favored over thoughtless play. One of the people I played with actually developed a system of marking states with the values they could still hold and she would win by a good margin because of it.

The game also features three “special abilities” that each player can use three times per game, allowing you to ignore the color of a die, ignore the placement restriction, or duplicate a die’s color and value. The basic system is fairly strategic, but these abilities add levels of system mastery that you wouldn’t expect, and tactical possibilities that raise the game from simple filler to… slightly less simple filler. It’s still not going to be the main game of an evening, but it’s not intended to be, and it has depth that other time wasters don’t.

Now, because it is dice-based, a player can make a move that is fine in the moment but ends up being a mis-play down the road. It’s not a major flaw; I want to emphasize this because everyone plays from the same dice, so everyone has the same opportunities. But sometimes, you have to take a risk that you isn’t particularly risky, and then the dice results force you to have to use a special ability or take a hit in the score. Another potential issue I ran into in a game where I was trying to be clever, and I made myself a bit uneasy… at the end of the game, you score your neighbor’s map, and mark any mistakes or empty states as penalties. So, a four adjacent to a six costs you a point. But, there is no rule about intentional “mistakes,” i.e. writing a number in a wrong place on purpose to avoid larger damage. I honestly don’t know if this is ever a good idea, but it seems like it could be, and that is discomforting.

Overall, Rolling America is a light, quick, but meaningful game. Your decisions matter, and despite depending on randomness, you can make good plays in the long-term (well, as long as the game gets, which is around 15 minutes), and you can play well. I have a difficult time thinking of a group that it wouldn’t fit well with, from young children to new gamers, from experienced euro-lovers to minis-loving dice-chuckers. It’s not the greatest filler in the world, but it’s surprisingly good for a game I picked up on a whim from a big box store.

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